Forum Features: Mergers & Acquisitions
A conversation with leaders of our Mergers & Acquisitions (M&A) team: Jen Kruk, VP of M&A; Yanpei (YP) Huang, Principal of M&A; Lauren Hipple, Principal of M&A.
Forum’s M&A team owns all elements of the brand acquisition process, from lead generation to business diligence and deal execution.
Jen, you spent over a decade at some of the largest financial institutions in the world. What brought you to Forum?
I love building things. What you’re building matters, but even more important is who you’re building it with and how you’re going to build it. I met Brenton, Ruben and Alex early on and was struck by the clarity of their vision for Forum. It wasn’t just a business plan, it was a clear focus on an organization with the right values, principles and culture to thrive over the long term.
I also love working with entrepreneurs and high growth companies. At Forum, I get to do what I love, grow a team and a function, and use the skills that I’ve developed throughout my career to execute at the highest level. I was the second full-time employee at the company and I’ve had the privilege of shaping the culture here since day one. This was a huge draw for me and it’s been one of the most fulfilling experiences of my professional life.
In my opinion, the opportunity I have at Forum is what everyone should look for in their careers - that perfect fit of doing what you love, doing what you’re passionate about and finding where you have the capacity to make an impact technically and culturally.
What was your vision in building the M&A function?
Brenton, Ruben and Alex drafted our six principles before they even started hiring. When I first interviewed with them, it was clear that those core company principles would also be foundational for the M&A function.
In terms of our hiring philosophy, it’s always been about building a group of passionate, smart, driven, consumer investors. Ultimately, I wanted a team that would make their best investment decisions by ensuring everyone has a seat at the table.
I strongly believe that diverse teams are the most impactful. It was critical that we made this a reality given the companywide impacts of our acquisition decisions. I’m proud of how this prioritization of diversity has come to fruition. As it stands today, forty five percent of our investment team are women, fifty percent were born outside of the United States, we’re fluent in seven languages other than English and we’ve conducted calls with Amazon sellers in Spanish, French, Hebrew and Mandarin.
How would you describe Forum’s approach to acquisitions?
The principles of our acquisition strategy have remained consistent since the day I joined the team, which is something I’m really proud of. I would break our approach down into three components: thoughtful and strategic, partnership-led and efficient.
On the thoughtful and strategic side, we have a clear vision for the company - not just in the short term, but over the next five to ten years. Before we even send an offer to a potential acquisition, in partnership with our operating team, we have already performed an assessment of how the business fits within our broader strategy, as well as how Forum can grow the brand in the near and long term. We’ve also intentionally made acquisitions at a slower pace than some of our peers. That intent has put us in a strong position to thoughtfully go on the offensive in our current market.
Ultimately, we want to be good partners to the broader Amazon and ecommerce community. I always encourage my team to think about what we can do for the sellers, brokers and referral partners that make up our ecosystem. We have that positive, two-way relationship mentality with every part of the market.
In terms of efficiency, we have a ton of experience in the team. Between all of us, we’ve completed over seventy M&A transactions throughout our careers. Selling a business can be stressful for entrepreneurs. We have a solid, streamlined process in place to get deals done in an efficient manner. Sellers trust us to close the deal. They know that we’ll genuinely care for their business once it's under our ownership.
YP, you were one of Jen’s first hires. How has the team evolved since you joined?
When I joined in the summer of 2021, we had three dedicated investment professionals. Today, that number has tripled. But quality of talent is even more important than quantity. We’ve expanded by bringing on the best and brightest people. We rely on the collective wisdom of the entire team.
We’ve also made significant improvements to our processes, particularly sourcing and diligence. We understand that every seller is unique. Our outreach and interaction with them reflects this understanding - we see sellers as partners, not just the other side of a transaction. On the diligence and post-diligence side, we’ve emphasized cross-functional integration and collaboration.
You’re in constant communication with Amazon sellers. What’s on their mind today?
The first thing that comes to mind is growth. Every seller wants to maximize their business’ sales. It’s fascinating speaking to sellers because at the end of the day, their business is unique and their path to growth is unique as well.
The second point is cost or margins. Sellers care about business profit. Supply chain challenges have driven increased container and freight cost. This results in deteriorating gross margins and poses a challenge for almost every single Amazon seller today.
Another common point of discussion is advertising. The market has become significantly more competitive. To win, a product has to achieve a certain number of reviews and a certain product rank. Advertising is how you get there, but it can be expensive. Maximizing that ad spend efficiently is a tricky balancing act for sellers.
The last point is the exit. Some sellers feel that they have the capacity to keep growing the business on their own. Others are open to exiting. Generally, if a seller is interested in a sale in the near term, they’re speaking with a number of different acquirers to evaluate their options. The ultimate price is obviously important, but we also hear that a seller wants to sell their business to a trustworthy partner with a long-term plan who can deliver the deal they promise.
Switching gears. YP, Forum has six principles that guide every aspect of who we are and what we do. Can you tell us how these principles apply to the M&A team?
We encourage every M&A professional to act like an owner, particularly in their section of the diligence process. This can be anything from market analysis to evaluating financial data. By owning their specific responsibility, each individual is empowered to think independently, find creative solutions and bring their takeaway to the table.
We value communication and transparency in everything that we do. We’ve created an open and horizontal environment for the entire team to share thoughts on whether an opportunity makes sense for Forum. For example, when an analyst connects with a seller, the analyst shares a summary of their discussion with the entire team and a recommendation to move forward or not. The rest of the team then weighs in to make a collective decision. We also have weekly meetings on Monday mornings where we all discuss the pros and cons of sourced opportunities.
As Jen mentioned, our diversity is our strength and our bond. We respect and appreciate each other’s unique backgrounds and perspectives. At the same time, we are a fun, close-knit team with similar mentalities.
Where do you feel that your voice has made an impact?
We recently connected with two sellers with Chinese backgrounds and I spoke to them in Mandarin. It may seem like a minor point, but that connection was critical in building trust and understanding. As a result, we gained additional information from the sellers during the early diligence process that other acquirers did not have. Although the deal didn’t materialize, we developed a positive ongoing relationship with the seller.
My background and identity were truly able to shine in this process.
Lauren, you joined Forum in early July. What stands out about your experience so far?
The team is exceptional. A huge part of what we do on the M&A side is diligence on brands. The sheer amount of in-house knowledge that we’ve accumulated at Forum is truly impressive. I’ve worked on transactions of different sizes and structures throughout my career. You can pay lots of money for the necessary expertise to evaluate potential acquisitions and get a deal over the line. At Forum, we have that expertise internally. That talent is going to make us a powerhouse as we continue to expand our portfolio.
How has mentorship played a role in getting you up to speed here?
The M&A team is incredibly intentional about everything that we do, including onboarding and bringing new team members into the mix. We’re a process-oriented group. Getting up to speed and feeling comfortable and confident to execute has been streamlined and efficient, not just internally within our team but cross-functionally as well. This level of organization and collaboration is especially unique for a relatively young company.
Last question for each of you. Who are some of your heroes?
Lauren: Dolly Parton. The woman has had multiple careers, she exceeds expectations by unabashedly being herself and she’s maintained relevancy and success through generations. Not to mention, we’re consumer product investors and she’s a great brand!
YP: Rafael Nadal. I see it from the perspective of the human journey. He’s a talented player, but also humble, consistent and persistent. He never gives up. I think that spirit of building – to be patient, to stick to the goal - is very inspiring. Because in the end, that’s how every individual or company can go beyond our own limitations and achieve something lasting.
Jen: Ruther Bader Ginsburg and Madeleine Albright. They were both firsts. While I’m certainly not the first woman to work in finance, it’s great to have role models like that who were genuine trailblazers.